Case his­tory

How an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery by a fern col­lec­tor in the East End of Lon­don led to one of the most re­mark­able in­ven­tions in hor­ti­cul­tural his­tory

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS JULIET GILES IL­LUS­TRA­TION RE­BECCA LEA WIL­LIAMS

How a Lon­don doc­tor changed gar­den­ing

In Novem­ber 1834, Ge­orge Lod­di­ges of the Con­rad Lod­di­ges & Sons Nurs­ery in Hack­ney, east Lon­don, took charge of a ship­ment of plants from Syd­ney, Aus­tralia. Among the plants was the first live in­tro­duc­tion to the UK of the del­i­cate co­ral fern Gle­iche­nia mi­cro­phylla and sev­eral Cal­li­coma ser­rat­i­fo­lia that had grown from seed on the jour­ney. The plants had spent the eight-month voy­age on the deck of the ship, un­wa­tered, in tem­per­a­tures that had ranged from -7ºC to 49ºC, but they ar­rived back in Lon­don it what Lod­di­ges de­scribed as a ‘very healthy state’ be­cause they were the first plants to be shipped to the UK in a War­dian case. These closely glazed cases rev­o­lu­tionised the move­ment of live plants around the globe. Lod­di­ges es­ti­mated that be­fore he be­gan us­ing the cases he would lose 19 out of ev­ery 20 plants he im­ported dur­ing a sea voy­age, but in the War­dian cases he found 19 out of 20 was the av­er­age that sur­vived. How­ever, al­though, Lod­di­ges was the first nurs­ery­man to use the case, he didn’t in­vent it, the idea had come from one of his clients, a doc­tor, and keen am­a­teur botanist and en­to­mol­o­gist, called Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward.

Ward had a pas­sion for ferns and had hoped to cre­ate a fern­ery in the gar­den of his home in Well­close Square in east Lon­don, but in the early 19th cen­tury, the air in the East End was so thick with coal soot that all at­tempts to grow the ferns in his gar­den proved fu­tile un­til, quite by ac­ci­dent, he stum­bled upon a so­lu­tion. One day in 1829 he had placed the pupa of a sphinx moth in a sealed glass bot­tle so that he could ob­serve more closely its meta­mor­pho­sis. As he made notes on the daily changes he no­ticed that wa­ter from the leaf mould he’d used to cover the pupa would evap­o­rate dur­ing the day, con­dense on the jar’s sides and then when tem­per­a­tures dropped run back down to the mould, cre­at­ing a mini ecosys­tem. Then, as he later de­scribed: ‘About a week prior to the fi­nal change of in­sect, a seedling Fern and Grass made their ap­pear­ance upon the sur­face’. With the moth re­moved, he kept the bot­tle on his study win­dow and watched how the plants con­tin­ued thrive un­til the bot­tle’s lid rusted.

What Ward had cre­ated was es­sen­tially a ter­rar­ium, and a way for him to grow ferns. But after suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ments with a range of other plants he be­gan see other uses. As a doc­tor in the East End he was acutely aware of the prob­lems of poor nu­tri­tion among the poor and hoped the cases might be a way for many to grow veg­eta­bles in pol­luted cities, but he also saw an­other, more com­mer­cial, use: as a so­lu­tion to the prob­lems in trans­port­ing plants by sea. At the time, plants would of­ten be left to lan­guish in a ship’s cargo where they mostly died through lack of light and fresh wa­ter, but even if kept on deck, they could per­ish through ex­po­sure to salt wa­ter, winds and ex­tremes of tem­per­a­ture. Ward was con­vinced his sealed cases would al­low plants to be stored for sev­eral months on deck in sun­light, with­out any at­ten­tion or wa­ter­ing. To prove his point, in June 1833 he and Lod­di­ges filled two sturdy cases with a mix of ferns and grasses and sent them on the ex­posed deck of a ship to Syd­ney where they ar­rived in per­fect con­di­tion. The cases were re­filled and re­turned with the plants Lod­di­ges col­lected in Novem­ber 1834.

Ward pub­lished the re­sults of his ex­per­i­ments in On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases in 1842, by which time he had al­ready con­vinced his friend Sir Wil­liam Hooker of their use­ful­ness. Hooker be­came the first of­fi­cial di­rec­tor of the Royal Botanic Gar­dens, Kew, in 1841, and his son, Joseph, was one of the first botanists to use the cases to send plants back to Kew from an ex­pe­di­tion to New Zealand. By 1847 the War­dian case was in reg­u­lar use by Kew, not al­ways with com­plete suc­cess – ‘I now call Ward’s cases ‘Ward’s coffins!’ be­moaned Joseph Hooker after los­ing a badly packed a con­sign­ment of plants – but suc­cess­ful enough that Sir Wil­liam Hooker re­ported that in just 15 of years use, he had im­ported six times as many plants to Kew than had been im­ported in the pre­vi­ous cen­tury. Over time the cases were fur­ther devel­oped to bet­ter pro­tect the plants, by in­clud­ing crossed bat­tens to hold the plants in place on rough cross­ings, and ven­ti­la­tion holes cov­ered in per­fo­rated zinc to Left An il­lus­tra­tion of an early War­dian case from Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s book On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, first pub­lished in 1842. The War­dian case was ar­guably the most sig­nif­i­cant hor­ti­cul­tural in­ven­tion of the 19th cen­tury. It played a fun­da­men­tal role in the de­vel­op­ment of in­ter­na­tional trade and the British econ­omy, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to trans­plant com­mer­cially sig­nif­i­cant plants from their na­tive habi­tats and in­tro­duce them to cul­ti­va­tion for new coun­tries.

keep out ro­dents, and Kew con­tin­ued to use War­dian cases up un­til 1962.

Many fa­mil­iar gar­den plants first trav­elled to this coun­try in a War­dian case, but its use didn’t just change the look of our gar­dens. By al­low­ing the trans­port of foods and cash crops the case trans­formed our di­ets and helped shape our econ­omy. The banana from which the seedless Cavendish banana was devel­oped was car­ried to Chatsworth in a War­dian case. In 1848 the Scot­tish botanist Robert For­tune used War­dian cases to smug­gle more than 20,000 Camel­lia sinen­sis plants out of China to es­tab­lish tea plan­ta­tions in In­dia and bring an end to the Chi­nese mo­nop­oly on tea. Twelve years later the English geog­ra­pher Sir Cle­ments Markham smug­gled Cin­chona of­fic­i­nalis shrubs out of South Amer­ica in War­dian cases to es­tab­lish plan­ta­tions in British colonies. The qui­nine pro­duced from the bark of these Cin­chona of­fic­i­nalis was in­stru­men­tal in the ex­pan­sion of the British Em­pire, as it en­abled Euro­peans to live in ar­eas where malaria was Top left Ward’s largest closed cab­i­net was a fern house filled with ex­otic plants, which he built in the gar­den of his house in Clapham. Left Lon­don’s Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851 in­cluded a War­dian case with a plant that al­legedly had not been wa­tered in 18 years.

rife. In fact, with­out qui­nine, ar­gues the his­to­rian Daniel R Head­rick in The Tools of Em­pire, ‘Euro­pean colo­nial­ism would have been al­most im­pos­si­ble in Africa, and much costlier else­where in the trop­ics.’

As well as the prac­ti­cal cases used in the field, or­na­men­tal ver­sions of the War­dian case were made, which al­lowed even those on rel­a­tively mod­est in­comes to bring some ex­otic green­ery into their homes, and helped fuel the Vic­to­rian crazes for ferns and or­chids (first brought to the UK in a War­dian case). But de­spite the cases’ pop­u­lar­ity, Ward made lit­tle money from his in­ven­tion, and con­tin­ued to prac­tice as a doc­tor in the East End be­fore re­tir­ing to Clapham. His pas­sion for ferns never left him, and in the gar­den of his home in Clapham Rise he fi­nally achieved his fern­ery in a large, closed glasshouse, de­scribed in an 1851 mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle as ‘a rep­re­sen­ta­tion (in minia­ture of course) of a trop­i­cal for­est’. When he died in 1868, his fern herbar­ium con­tained around 25,000 spec­i­mens. Right Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in around 1866. His ac­ci­den­tal in­ven­tion gained him the re­spect of botanists. He was elected a Fel­low of both the Royal So­ci­ety and the Lin­nean So­ci­ety and Sir Wil­liam Hooker named the moss genus War­dia in his hon­our.

Was home to the Vic­to­rian plant hunter Robert For­tune (1812- 1880) who used Ward’s closed cases to smug­gle tea plants out of China in 1848 to break China’s tea mo­nop­oly. The nov­el­ist Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) and her hus­band Harold Ni­col­son (1886-1968) lived here be­fore cre­at­ing their fa­mous gar­den at Siss­inghurst. The land­scape gar­dener Charles Bridge­man (1690-1738), who helped to pi­o­neer the nat­u­ral­is­tic land­scape style, spent the fi­nal 15 years of his life at this ad­dress. 77 9 Gil­ston Road, Chelsea 182 Ebury Street, Bel­gravia 54 Broad­wick Street, Soho

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